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In a Profession Plagued by Homogeneity, a Philosophy Conference Delivers Diversity

Although professional philosophy has long suffered a lack of racial, gender and intellectual diversity, the Diverse Lineages of Existentialism Conference offers a model for inclusion and growth of the discipline and its community.

Diverse Lineages of Existentialism conference in St. Louis Missouri from June 19-21, 2014. (Screengrab via YouTube)

On June 19-21, 2014, Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, hosted the first-ever “Diverse Lineages of Existentialism” conference. Hailed by many participants as an historic conference, it brought together hundreds of scholars from every continent (save Antarctica), who work in existentialism, phenomenology, and a variety of other approaches to philosophy and thought from Africana, feminist, Latino, Continental, Marxist and global perspectives.

This conference, conceived and co-organized by committee chair Margaret A. Simons to celebrate the publication of The Beauvoir Series at the University of Illinois Press, was also the first meeting of the diverse set of philosophical circles and societies who work in these traditions, including the Caribbean Philosophical Association, the Collegium of Black Women Philosophers, the Merleau-Ponty Circle, the North American Sartre Society, PhiloSOPHIA: A Feminist Society, the Philosophy Born of Struggle Society, the Roundtable on Latina Feminism, and the Simone de Beauvoir Society.

Most establishment meetings are white – very white – an arrogant whiteness that props itself up as such through concern for truth and rigor when in fact it’s simply the security of not having to deal with a wider world of excellence.”

The Diverse Lineages of Existentialism meeting was a far cry from a typical philosophy conference. In a discipline dominated by white men, this conference hosted as many women as men and a large number of people of color along with white participants. In a discipline often characterized by its esoteric isolation from public and politics, instead there was outpouring of conversations about social justice and lived human experience. Given the recent public and professional conversations about the lack of diversity in philosophy, the Diverse Lineages of Existentialism (DLE) conference is a hopeful glance into the future of the discipline – one that is long overdue and necessary if philosophy is to continue as a viable and relevant living and growing field, both in the academy and in the public imagination.

Philosophy’s Dearth of Diversity

Lewis Gordon noted in his keynote lecture on “Existential Philosophy as a World Philosophy,” that philosophers from around the globe have been doing work in reflective, engaged, phenomenological and existentialist thought for centuries, and it has gone largely unnoted and untaught in most philosophy classrooms and conferences – just as the people who do this work today have gone largely underappreciated and uninvited to the echelon of so-called “real philosophy.” The latest demographic information released by the American Philosophical Association’s (APA) Committee on the Status of Women show that it remains the case that eighty percent of employed philosophers are men and most of them are white. The attitude among many of these philosophers is that feminist philosophy, non-Western philosophy, critical race theory, applied philosophy, and certain strands of phenomenology, existentialism and political philosophy do not count as true, rigorous, real philosophical work.

Public eyes turned to the “What is it Like to be a Woman in Philosophy?” blog to read hundreds of harrowing and enraging cases of women who have been belittled, harassed, extorted, and in some cases, physically assaulted in academic settings and contexts.

In an interview after the meeting, Gordon added: “Most establishment meetings are thus both intellectually and socially several decades (and in some cases more than a century) behind. All this amounts to the elephant in the room: Most establishment meetings are white – very white -an arrogant whiteness that props itself up as such through concern for truth and rigor when, in fact, it’s simply the security of not having to deal with a wider world of excellence.”

Gordon’s comments are echoed by Mariana Ortega, the founder and organizer of “The Roundtable on Latina Feminism,” who said, “I am deeply concerned about the current state of philosophy given not only its turf wars between analytic and continental thought, but also in terms of the lack of importance given to social identities such as race, sexuality, class, gender, ability, etc. There are still so many philosophers whose methodology does not take into consideration the impact that these identities have in our ways of knowing the world and in our ways of faring in the world.”

It has been no secret in recent months that professional philosophy has long been suffering a dearth of diversity. The resignation of Colin McGinn from the University of Miami amidst allegations of sexual harassment and an inappropriate relationship with a female student last summer seemed to be a kind of wake-up call for the discipline. That case shone a brief public spotlight on a culture of sexual harassment that has persisted in professional philosophy for decades. Public eyes turned to the “What is it Like to be a Woman in Philosophy?” blog to read hundreds of harrowing and enraging cases of women who have been belittled, harassed, extorted, and in some cases physically assaulted in academic settings and contexts.

Slowly, the silence has been breaking as more and more accounts of sexual misconduct are going public, including the removal of the University of Colorado-Boulder chair last January due to an APA Committee on the Status of Women site report of the culture of sexism in that department; two public cases of male professors sleeping with their female graduate students; and a flutter of activity on the Feminist Philosophers blog, which has long been compiling stories and conversation about sexism in the field. In late 2013, five well-known women philosophers wrote a series of op-eds in the New York Times about the culture of sexism and homogeneity in academic philosophy that pushes talented, thoughtful women and people of color out of the discipline.

Those who work in existentialism tend to see philosophy as a way of life that cannot operate in isolation and that living authenticity requires a basic commitment to interactivity and social justice.

This lack of diversity in professional philosophy is a problem not only because it perpetuates a culture of exclusion and marginalization of broad swaths of the population, but also because it results in bad philosophy – philosophy that is narrow, self-aggrandizing, territorial, and is concerned less with knowledge, reality, and truth than with it own self-preservation. It eschews complexities and rejects alternative sites and methods of epistemological discovery, ethical considerations, aesthetic standards, modes of cognition, and metaphysical commitments.

Redefining Boundaries

In this stuffy professional climate, the Diverse Lineages of Existentialism was a breath of fresh air. Not only did the DLE provide an opportunity and space for female and male scholars, white scholars and scholars of color to build new relationships and robust philosophical theory with each other, but it also placed existentialism and phenomenology – theoretical approaches that take seriously lived human experience – at the forefront of this communion. President of the North American Sartre Society, Matthew Eshleman describes these approaches: “Those who work in existentialism tend to see philosophy as a way of life that cannot operate in isolation and that living authenticity requires a basic commitment to interactivity and social justice. Another shared element is that we tend not to be territorial about disciplinary lines. We are open to hybridity, invention and transformation. This openness may seem more common today, but mainstream academic philosophy was and frequently remains rather territorial about what counts as philosophy and who could or can participate professionally.”

Indeed, the Diverse Lineages of Existentialism conference challenged these boundaries at every turn. After a welcome session on the opening day, the following mornings began with readings of philosophical poetry by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Ngũgĩ wa Njeeri, Frieda Ekotto and Lyndon Gill. Eight concurrent panels were then held in sessions over three days, with panel titles, formulated by Jane Anna Gordon, president of the Caribbean Philosophical Association, that reveal both the diversity of philosophical thought and method and the connection of this thought to the experiences of real human beings in social, political, and cultural contexts. To list a few panels on the program: “Vulnerability, Listening, and Authentic Emotion,” “Black, Male, and Silent: How the Death of Black Men and Boys Challenges the Territories of Critical Thought,” “The Adventures of Liberal Travel,” “Violence and Existential Psychoanalytic Therapy,” and “Discursivity, the Self, and Latinidad.”

Rather than centralizing the usual lineup of white European male philosophers (Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, etc.), the DLE panelists referenced influences from all over the world. These ranged from figureheads Simone de Beauvoir, Frantz Fanon, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Maurice Merleau-Pointy, but also W.E.B. Du Bois, Alain Locke, Richard Wright, Lorraine Hansberry, Audre Lorde, and James Baldwin in the US context, as well as those often overlooked such as José Ortega y Gasset and Miguel de Unamuno in Spain, Nishitani Keiji in Japan, Ali Shariati in Iran, Abdel-Rahman Badawi in Egypt, Steve Biko in South Africa, or Léopold Sédar Senghor in Senegal. Living philosophers, such as Angela Y. Davis, Enrique Dussel, and Cornel West, in addition to several influential scholars in attendance, were also heavily referenced.

After speaking with various organizers and participants in the DLE, one theme repeated in their comments is that connecting with ideas and philosophers from diverse backgrounds engendered new insights, ideas, and theoretical foundations. Eshleman reflected, “Another aspect which I knew theoretically but hadn’t really experienced so concretely is not only that cognition takes place on social grounds but also that diverse social grounds tend to bring together diverse ideas in new and exciting ways.” These conversations were characterized by themes of social justice, liberation, ethics, aesthetics, identity, the structures of racism, sexism, classism, nationalism and capitalism, and reflections on the discipline of philosophy itself.

America is not simply in harm’s way, it stands as the end of precipice about to fall into what Hannah Arendt once called “dark times.”

What’s more, many participants said that they felt as though they had found one of the few philosophical meetings in which they did not have to defend their presence or their projects. Jane Anna Gordon describes the situation: “When attending other professional organization meetings, many of our participants are pushed to exhaust their presentation time with either explaining why it is valuable to do their work at all or being pushed to legitimate its worthiness or seriousness as philosophy. Since this was a space in which the definition of philosophy and philosophical worthiness or legitimacy were treated as open questions, presenters could jump into the meat or heart of the matter – spending most of their time actually making the arguments that are their central concern.” The result was an electrifying three days in which conference-goers expanded their bodies of knowledge, reoriented their perspectives, and began what will no doubt become fruitful collaborations.

A Growing Movement

Thankfully, the DLE is one model in a growing movement of philosophers who are working to diversify the field and to engage more robustly with the public. Pluralist’sGuide.Org, created by Linda Martín Alcoff, Paul Taylor and William Wilkerson, provides information on programs where, “students from traditionally underrepresented populations might reasonably expect to find a welcoming environment (as much as philosophers, or graduate programs, are ever welcoming.)” The American Philosophical Association cosponsored a “Diversity in Philosophy” Conference in May 2013, and another is scheduled for May 2015. The blog “What We’re Doing About What it’s Like” documents and compiles efforts to make the climate of professional philosophy better for women. And the Public Philosophy Network, created by Sharon M. Meagher, is an online space to encourage and support publicly engaged philosophical research and practices.

Philosophy as a discipline is so much broader and more dynamic, exciting, diverse, and creative than its current homogenous professional state suggests. The Diverse Lineages of Existentialism conference is a step in the right direction – along with other steps made by its various constituent societies and like-minded scholars – of building a new future for philosophy. But, of course, the change will not be made overnight. “We have a long way to go for philosophy to be wise – for our love of wisdom to be one that is inclusive of many traditions and issues that due to epistemic and political violence have traditionally been undermined or even made invisible,” said Ortega.

Plans for another DLE is already underway, perhaps with an even more expansive and dynamic agenda. Kyoo Lee, one of the organizers and assistant director of philoSOPHIA: A Feminist Society, gave a comment that asks us to imagine the possibilities: “This has just started. We have a long way to go. What would ‘we’ look, or feel, like in, say, 10 years?”

Indeed, the DLE conference offered a vision for what philosophy can be as an intellectual pursuit and what professional philosophy could look like. Such a vision is critically important not only for young women scholars and scholars of color who are considering a future in professional philosophy, but for the health and vitality of the discipline.

If philosophy is to last as a living, breathing, epistemologically and methodologically rigorous discipline; if philosophy departments are to be inclusive and expansive, grow instead of shrink; if philosophical work is to touch real lives and true experiences, the Diverse Lineages of Existentialism conference must not in the future be an exceptional conference, but a guide for professional philosophy as a whole. Thanks to the courageous work of its organizers and participants, and of others who are working to change the climate in professional philosophy, Diverse Lineages of Existentialism conference may become, as Eshleman said, “not simply a tradition but a transformation.”

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